Monday, June 19, 2017
Fannie Lou Hamer's story
In 1964, I was a kid, a couple of years away from voting age, a son of my father, and like him, a Republican. I was no Bircher, but I remember my thrill when Barry Goldwater told the nation and the world that "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice." I was old enough to know what that single sentence meant to hard-line right-wingers whose fear of commies and leftists pushed them to the "extremes" Goldwater legitimized--or tried to--with that widely anticipated and much beloved line.
I remember watching the speech on our old black-and-white Zenith, maybe my first real interest in politics on a national scale. Like my dad, I thought Goldwater a prophet and Martin Luther King a communist, a man who stirred up all kinds of social discord--even violence--throughout the nation.
What did I know? Not much, but I was confident about defending American liberty.
I have no memories of the 1964 Democratic Convention, I'm guessing the Zenith wasn't on, not because my parents would have objected but because there simply wasn't any interest. I'm sure the speakers who rose to the dais would have been disappointing to them and to me.
So I have no memories whatsoever of a short speech given by a stocky African-American woman named Fannie Lou Hamer, a woman who was pleading the case of a delegation of Mississippians, most of them black, asking for voting credentials at that convention. Hamer had a sixth-grade education and no more because her hands were needed in the cottonfields, where her family tried to make a life from sharecropping. She'd started picking cotton when she was six years old.
When Fannie Lou Hamer sat and told the 1964 Democratic Convention what she'd suffered--a horrible beating while jailed in Winona, Mississippi on some ridiculous charge--delegates were stunned. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had occupied the office for less than a year at that point and who, down the road, distinguished himself boldly and wonderfully for the cause of civil rights in this country, was scared to death he'd lose the votes of the Dixiecrats to the Republicans if they heard Hamer's indictment of Southern racism. Johnson was so scared he called the networks to interrupt the Ms. Hamer's testimony,
He told them he was having an important unscheduled news conference. The networks assumed that he was about to name his nomination for Vice-President, so, just like that, they turned out the lights on Fannie Lou Hamer and starting broadcasting from the Oval Office, where LBJ simply told the nation it was, at that moment, nine months since the death of President Kennedy. That's it. That was the whole story.
There was no news. What there was, was subterfuge. Johnson successfully kept Fannie Lou Hamer's testimony from gaining a national audience. That happened. That actually happened.
So much about that story is out-and-out incredible. First, Hamer herself--a woman who'd spent her life in cottonfields, trying to make a life for her children, a woman who wanted to vote and got beaten horribly for nothing more than wanting rights that were hers. Hers is an awful story. It turns your stomach, wrenches your heart.
Then, the entire situation--Johnson, the civil rights advocate, worried about an election should white Southerners start going over to the other side and supporting Goldwater; Johnson, who did so much for African-Americans, shutting out the lights on Ms. Hamer's incredible story.
And then the press, who left the convention floor and flocked to the Oval Office to cover the President, like so many lemmings. But then again, however, the press, who smelled something liuke "fake news" a half-century ago and went back over the ground they'd just trod in an effort to locate the source of the smell they couldn't get out of their system. Eventually, a free press found it, discovered the whole blasted story.
I never knew all of that until I read James H. Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree, a reprimand, an indictment against "Christian" America. Cone's book is a Jeremiad that's just plain wilting in every way possible--culturally, morally, spiritually--to the white folks at whom he aims, most specifically those who confess the name of Jesus.
Cone makes you weep, makes you wonder where you were in 1964, where you were for a half-century or more of terrifying bloodletting when white folks, many of them church-going folks, pulled out ropes from their shed and hung black men--and some black women--for one purpose only: to keep n______s in their place.
If you're a white man or woman, The Cross and the Lynching Tree will teach you all kinds of things you didn't know, things you can't help but wonder how you missed. This summer or any other, it's not for the beach; but it will make you wonder where you've been.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 7:11 AM